Contents: May/June 2002
Children's choirs add zest and attract families to church
by Donald E. Skinner
When children's choirs are very visible in the services they help attract families to church, says Beth Norton, director of music at the First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts.
"Kids even those who don't read music pick up music really fast," says Connie Booth, music director of Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. "And the congregation loves it."
"It's important for young people," says the Rev. Alfa Radford, minister of music at the First Church in Belmont, Massachusetts. "It's a memory they'll always carry with them."
Many UU congregations have found that choirs of children and youth not only add zest to their services, but give children a place to connect with each other, to be creative, and to contribute to the church community. This is why the parents at the 113-member Heritage UU Church in Cincinnati wanted a children's choir. Music director Booth wanted one, too, but she already had an adult choir and she wasn't sure she was up to it.
So she did two things. She signed up as a chaperone for the Children's Honor Choir at the Nashville General Assembly, and last summer she participated in a UU Musicians' Network workshop on young choirs. "I had to get myself in a spot where I could stay a measure or two ahead of the kids," she said. Booth started with a couple of guidelines. "We picked really cool, easy-to-learn songs with lots of rhythm," she said, "and we planned around the soccer season."
Booth's new choir made its debut last year at a retirement ceremony for Heritage's minister, the Rev. Elinor Artman. The choir performed again at Christmas and then on St. Patrick's Day for the ordination of the interim minister, the Rev. Amy Russell. "The congregation is just delighted to have kids singing in church," she says.
At the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, music director Jason Shelton's two youthful choirs one for first- through twelfth-graders and the other for seventh- through twelfth-graders often participate in worship services. Shelton, a composer, helps the older choir write occasional pieces. One piece, "A Day in the Mountains," reflects the web of life, creation, and the singers' own mountain experiences. Another, "All People," explores ways people can live together in harmony.
"When kids sing something they wrote themselves it's very powerful," says Shelton. "This year, for Canvass Sunday, we did a piece about what it means to be committed to church. It gave kids a chance to think about their own commitment."
"The relationships among the kids keep them coming," he says. "Especially here in the South our youth may feel they're different by being UU. And so they really like to be together. Choir is one more place for them to be together. And I get overwhelmingly positive responses from the congregation about what we do."
The First Parish in Concord has two children's choirs one for first- through third-graders and one for fourth- through sixth-graders and a gospel choir for teenagers. Music director Norton, the choir directors, and the Rev. Gary Smith, senior minister, help the children and youth understand that singing is part of their ministry to the church. "We share with them that what they're doing is worship, not a performance," Norton reports. "And we let the congregation know that, too. People listen to them differently with that in mind. Several years ago we did a commissioning of the group with the congregation, noting, 'These people are here to lead us in worship, not entertain us.' "
"And we discourage applause," Norton says. "It's easy with a children's group to applaud because they're so cute. And there are still times when applause is the only right response. But people do listen to them differently now."
Norton credits Diane Boucher, First Parish's director of children's choirs, with the program's success. "She's very good with kids. In their rehearsals they start with 'Spirit of Life,' including the hand motions. It helps connect the choirs to what they do in religious education and their own chapel services."
Boucher adds, "There's so much joy in children's singing. They have no fear like adults do and they're always happy to do it no matter what their day has been like. It's also an escape for them. After September 11, we found that singing was a place where they felt safe and warm."
The younger choirs rehearse Wednesday evening. The gospel choir rehearses Sunday morning because of the busier schedules of teens. "When I started this program a few years ago, the advice from our religious education director was to just pick a time, do a really good job, and people will come," said Norton. "And that's happened. Kids make a commitment to do this and families support it."
Says Page, who is based in Boston, "The biggest thing that congregations do wrong is to assume children's choirs are lesser versions of adult choirs. Our expectations are generally too low. To motivate children you start with the premise they can sing beautifully. If you make the premise that kids are not capable of anything good or that kids are supposed to be out of tune, you'll fail."
"You need to start with the premise they can make music that will just lift the soul," Page says. "Then you have to make them sound good and let them know they sound good. You do that by choosing the right songs." Page, who presents workshops on singing, is the author of several children's song books. His latest book is Sing and Shine On, published by World Music Press.
Radford, the minister of music in Belmont, is co-author of a booklet on starting a children's choir. Although many children's choirs are organized by volunteers, Radford encourages congregations to provide funding, even at a small level. "The choirs that really are successful are the ones that get funded," she says. "People take them more seriously."
Belmont has three children's choirs kindergarten through fourth-grade, fifth- and sixth-grade, and a youth choir with a total of 140 children and youth. "These choirs are the most exciting thing I do at my church," Radford says. "It's very energizing to work with them."
Sara Lynch Thomason, a Nashville ninth-grader, has been a member of children's choirs at the First Unitarian Universalist Church for five years. "We do really cool music that has perspective and shows how open we are to different opinions and feelings," she says. "For instance, after September 11 we did an Afghan lullaby. And we do a lot of African music."
"Choir can be hard because I have a lot of homework," she adds, "but I go because that's where my friends are and it's fun."
Max Erwin, a Nashville fourth-grader, says, "I really like looking into the audience and seeing all the happiness we create, even when we make people cry."
Copyright © 2002 Unitarian Universalist Association